Riga is an increasingly popular travel destination and for a good reason. Since Latvia regained its independence in 1991 Riga has flourished, becoming a vibrant cosmopolitan city with lot of museums, fashionable restaurants and a very rich cultural life. Besides its stunning medieval Old Town filled with winding alleyways and charming squares, the city also brags about one of the richest collections of art nouveau buildings. Almost all tourist attractions, historic buildings and hotels are contained within the borders of Centra rajons (made up of the Old Town and the Central District), which is relatively small and easy to walk. Most visitors coming to Riga will spend an average of two-three days visiting it, but if you really want to see all its great attractions you should allow at least five days. Here are some of the things you shouldn’t miss if you go to Riga:
1. Walk Through the Old Town
Old Town is the historical and geographical center of Riga and is by far the most attractive part of the city. Walking through its narrow alleys cobbled streets is like traveling back in time. Young girls dressed in traditional Latvian costumes playing different instruments, or dancing will make you feel like you are in the Medieval Era.
The best place to start your visit is the Town Hall Square (Ratslaukums), flanked by the beautifully ornate House of the Blackheads and the Town Hall.
Some of city’s oldest buildings and cathedrals –like the famous Three Brothers, or the Dome Cathedral– are in the Old Town. Also in the Old Town there are some of the best cafes and restaurants in the city, with plenty of outdoor seating in the summer.
2. Visit the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation
Located in the Old Town in the Dome complex –a 13th–20th century architectural monument– the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation is the oldest public museum in Latvia and in the Baltic. The museum has an impressive collection of artifacts that follow up the development of Riga from the earliest times through the Art Nouveau period.
3. Sip Some of Riga’s Famous Black Balsam
Riga Black Balsam is the famous national brand name of the dark and astringent liqueur made of 24 herbs. The recipe remains unchanged after 250 years since it was invented and is still a carefully guarded secret. The Black Balsam was originally created as a medicine.
The ledgend says that it helped cure the Empress Catherine the Great of a sickness that she developed while visiting Riga. With its 45% alcohol content, no wonder this bitter concoction helps people feel better! The Black Balsam is by far one of the strangest alcoholic spirits that you will ever come across, but it’s worth trying. However, beware that it’s not to everyone’s taste!
4. Indulge Your Taste Buds at Riga’s Central Market
While in Riga you should pay a visit to the Baltics’s largest market housed in five converted Zeppelin hangars. These strange looking semi-cylindrical buildings became Riga’s Central Market in 1930.
Each pavilion has a different specialty, from meat and fish, to fresh produce and diary products. The market is an absolute delight for all your senses. The area around the buildings is also crammed with stalls selling fruits, flowers and other goods.
5. Relax in the Bastejkalns Park
Just on the outside of the Old Town you have one of Riga’s most beautiful parks where you can take a canal cruise or just sit and watching life go by. Bastejkalns Park was formed in the 19th century after tearing down Riga’s old ramparts. The park is small but full of pretty statues and charming bridges.
One of these is Riga’s Bridge of Love which is covered in ‘love locks’. Attaching locks to bridges is one of the most popular traditions among newly wedded couples in Latvia, symbolizing the stability of their marriage. The Bridge of Love has probably the most extensive collection of locks in Riga.
6. Take a Guided Tour of the Latvian National Opera
Close to the Central District and bordering the Bastejkalns Park (Bastion Hill Park)is the beautifully restored Riga Opera House, a unique architectural masterpiece of the 19th century with guided tours and fantastic performances. Riga’s Opera House was one of the first buildings to get a full make-over after the Soviets left in 1991.
Check out the building and go to an actual show. Either way, the Opera House is one of Riga’s biggest attractions.
7. Stroll Through the Art Nouveau Walking District
From the Bastejkalns Park there are several picturesque bridges that allow you to cross over to the Central District. Elizabetes Ilea is one of the main streets of Riga’s art nouveau district that displays elaborate facades, mostly freshly restored. In the area you’ll also find many restaurants and cafes where you could enjoy some of the best Latvian dishes, usually at a lesser price than in the Old Town.
8. Visit the Nativity of Christ Cathedral
Built at the end of the 19th century in Neo-Byzantine style, the Nativity of Christ Cathedral is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the Baltics. During Soviet times, the cathedral was turned into a planetarium, but after 1991 it has returned to its original function.
9. Enjoy Beautiful Artworks at the Latvian National Museum of Art
Just North of the Old Town is one of Riga’s most impressive museums: the National Museum of Art. The building recently underwent an extensive restoration that converted the old classical structure into a modern and accessible structure with a beautiful interior design. The museum displays a permanent exhibition of Latvian art from the 19th and 20th century, as well as art from of the period of the Russian occupation. This is an absolute must see for art lovers.
10. Visit the the Corner House – the Former Headquarters of the KGB in Riga
One of the most memorable and at the same time disturbing experiences in Riga is visiting the Corner House. The imposing structure on the corner of Brivibas and Stabu streets seems just like any other art nouveau building in the neighborhood, but once inside you discover a world of horror. Thousands of Latvians have been imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, morally humiliated and executed within the depths of this building until 1991, right in the middle of the city.
It’s astonishing to realize that all these things were happening while we were leading our safe life in the U.S. or other free countries of the world.
11. Take a Boat Tour of the River Daugava
If you don’t mind spending 15 euros, cruising along the Daugava is a lovely way to see a different side of Riga. Sit back and relax for approximately one hour while the boat passes by the Riga Castle, the Old Town, the Central Market, gliding gently under three bridges and turning around at the TV Tower.
12. Hop Aboard the Beer Bike
Beer biking seems to be catching with the tourism industry and is now very popular all over the world. However, I’ll have to admit it may not be for everyone. The Beer Bike is powered by people peddling and it has a barrel filled with beer. So you basically ride a bike, drink beer, have fun. Beer biking is especially entertaining if you are in a big group of friends, or with your family. Rather than having a beer in a café or a restaurant, you can drink, drive and admire Riga’s architectural beauty all at the same time.